That First AFL Championship Game

January 1, 1961: A half century ago - and I was there to see it.

It was January 1, 1961 and, ah yes, I remember it well!

In their first year among the other founding partners in the new American Football League, the Houston Oilers were preparing to take on the Los Angeles Chargers in the first ever new professional football conference’s championship game at Jeppesen (now Robertson) Stadium on the University of Houston campus. And I was there with my girl friend, Sandy, to take it all in. We were young and fresh out of UH as new Cougars on the Houston job market back then, but we were able to obtain affordable tickets on about the north end 20 yard line in the preferred sun-at-our-backs west grandstands – in spite of that now seemingly dire financial fact.

What was the bare bones of that money fact? Well, as a 1960 psychology graduate, and waiting on an affordable opportunity for graduate school at Tulane, I was getting paid $339 a month as a full-time family case worker at what was then known as DePelchin Faith Home and Children’s Center here in Houston. Sandy was doing what most young women did with college training in 1960. She was not working as a teacher or nurse, so she had taken a job as a legal secretary. Of course, this was the era in which guys were expected to pick up the tab on all social outings, anyway, and, make no doubt about it, going to see the first AFL championship game of a half century ago was 99% my need and idea. Our female partners back in that day simply did not speak up and say, “Hey, Boob! Why don’t you make sure we get tickets for that first major sport championship game in Houston history!”

January 1, 1961: Our Game Faces Were On! You also dressed up for big games back then.

The game was great and quite exciting. The weather started brisk, but seemed to heat up with the action on the field before the 32,183 capacity crowd that showed up to view the biggest sporting event to that time in Houston history. “Old Jepp” was the Oilers’ home field during the 1960 inaugural season under Coach Lou Rymkus as Quarterback George Blanda and LSU Heisman Trophy Winning Running Back Billy Cannon led the baby-blue-sky adorned Oilers through their half of the first major championship season. Now all the men in blue had to do was knock off the visiting impostors from the West Coast to grab hold of the big boast that our Houston would be the permanent home to the first AFL football kings.

For those who stayed home that day, the first AFL championship game was being televised over ABC-TV with Jack Buck handling the play-by-play and George Ratterman and Les Keller handling the analyst/color roles. Forget instant replay and watching the game on a VCR later. There was no such thing back in 1961. You either saw it live or missed it completely.

The pre-San diego Chargers gave the Oilers all they could handle.

The Oiler offense sputtered in the first quarter as the Chargers’ Ben Agajanian banged home field goals of 38 and 22 yards for a 6-0 Los Angeles lead.

A 17-yard TD pass from George Blanda to Dave Smith early in the second quarter drew first blood for the Oilers, pulling the club ahead, 7-6, but that advantage failed quickly when Agajanian kicked another field goal from 27 yards to put the Chargers back on top by 9-7. A George Blanda field goal of 17 yards would put the Oilers ahead at halftime by 10-9.

The afternoon and our Houston fan appetite for winning went into halftime with a decided hot flash for the idea of winning it all.

#20 Billy Cannon racks up another gain on the ground.

The Oilers added some breathing room in the third quarter when QB George Blanda capped a drive hitting receiver Bill Groman in the end zone from 7 yards out for a 17-9 expansion on the lead. LA came back with a drive capped by a Paul Lowe dive run that again narrowed the Charger deficit to a single point at 17-16.

Going into the fourth quarter it was still anybody’s game at 17-16 Oilers and we all began to feel that curious teeter-totter between joyous hope and dreadnought fear of something going terribly wrong. Fortunately for Houston fans, the realization of dreadnought fears was little more than the hint of Houston’s future back in 1961.

Late in the fourth quarter, with the ball on the 12-yard line down near the south end zone, Oiler QB Blanda dumped a little pass off to RB Billy Cannon on the right side. Cannon took it on the fly and poured his heels into g-force traction. He took off down the sideline, coming our way on the other side of the field, and leaving all pursuers in the dust. Just as he once had done to Ole Miss while at LSU in 1959, Billy Cannon had stunned a foe and done the deal.

Our 32,183 voices roared as one. With little time remaining in the game, Houston now led 24-16 and we were on our way to our first citywide celebration of something that felt like a world championship.

After the game, many of us went to Valian’s for pizza. What better way to commemorate a championship. We poured pepperoni and anchovies all over the thing.

Now I’m just glad to be around long enough to remember things that happened in Houston a half century ago.

In spite of all the bad things people have learned to say about you since that time, Bud Adams, thanks for acting upon a dream that made big league sports in Houston available to the rest of us. And thank you, “Old Jepp,” for lasting this long as a daily reminder of Houston’s salad days in big time sports. It will be too bad for local history if UH decides to take apart all of your architectural exterior in the construction of its new venue on your current site.

Happy New Year and Fondest Memories, Houston! – And remember too – our best days are still out there – still yet come! Let’s all try to hang around for the party, OK?

Tags: , , , ,

4 Responses to “That First AFL Championship Game”

  1. Dr. D. Says:

    I didn’t make it to that one (I did see 6 of 7 home games that year!), but was in attendance at the 6 quarter championship game two years later when Abner Haynes called the overtime toss correctly and said “we’ll kick” giving the Oilers the ball and the wind. Unfortunately, it didn’t help.

    Dave Smith, the Ripon Ripper; Bill Groman from Heidelberg College – both football powerhouses in the 50’s?

    My favorites were Charlie Tolar and Dalva Allen. Orville Trask represented Rice Institute in this game.

    Thanks for the memories. Happy New Year!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Bill Gilbert Says:

    Bill-

    This brought back some great memories since I was also at that game with a girl friend. I hadn’t thought about it being exactly 50 years ago. I was living and working in Baton Rouge at the time and the similarity between Billy Cannon’s touchdown and the one I had seen him score against Ole Miss two years earlier was amazing.

    As I recall, Paul Lowe had a great game as did the late Jack Kemp as the San Diego quarterback.

    Bill Gilbert

  3. Robert Redman Says:

    Although being a native Houstonian, I was unable to make the inaugural AFL title game. But I was in attendence at the first ever major league baseball game played in Houston by a new team called the Houston Colt 45s. At the time I was a little leaguer in a new area of Houston called Spring Branch. I was picked from the “pool” by a team called the “Firefighters”. I was furious because all my buddies had major league ballclubs’ names on their jersies! Also, on the back of their jersies were sponser’s names like Brown & Root, Dr Pepper, ect. The back of my uniform had “Red” (above my number) and “Adair” (below my number) Yep, that’s why we were called the “Firefighters” and Mr. Adair took the entire team to opening day (THE opening day) of a brand-new Houston Sports franchise. He told us we all had to be at Slater Martin’s Sporting Goods store by mid morning to catch the “team bus” to Colt .45 Stadium. (near Kirby and what is now the South Loop) Mr. Adair was a great sponser, plenty of goodies at team parties. He and I got along great; we both had red hair!! Whenever I hear of an oil well fire on the news, I always remember the man who was the best at putting them out. Rest in peace Red. Robert Redman, Houston native (Hook ’em ‘Horns!)

  4. Mark Wernick Says:

    I just got to this article. I can’t say much about the game – I was 12 years old at the time and living in San Antonio. But as fate would have it, I too worked at DePelchin, Bill – 33 years after you did! By then it was, and still is, called DePelchin Childrens’ Center.

    Mark

Leave a Reply to Bill Gilbert Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: